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Television, turnout, and the election-industrial complex

“I never met a politician who started out to be a fund-raiser,” remarked Mike McKenna, a Republican energy lobbyist and recipient of constant pleas for cash from lawmakers. For years, he has watched them dial for dollars and endure nightly gatherings convened for the extraction of donations — “grim affairs,” in his phrase — because they have been convinced such efforts are vital for survival at the polls. “Most of them run for office because they want to achieve something,” he told me. “But once they get there, they spend their time raising money. I don’t know a single one who enjoys it.” Ironically, he explained over a beer on K Street, most of the money they raise is wasted, especially on expensive TV campaigns that do nothing to move voters. The principal effect of these labors, he insisted, is to “feed the consultant class.”

My companion was referring to the strategists, pollsters, TV-ad makers, media buyers, direct-mail specialists, broadcasters, and other subcategories of what we should properly call the election-industrial complex. Amid an economy that has bumped along since the 2008 crash, this industry has enjoyed a staggering growth curve, barely matched in percentage terms even by its military counterpart, as candidates and campaigns rattle their begging bowls ever more furiously with each cycle.

Illustration by Darrel Rees

Illustration by Darrel Rees

Such manic spending is driven by a core belief of modern American politics: the votes can be bought if the check is big enough. “You now have the potential of two hundred people deciding who ends up being elected president every single time,” Barack Obama told a select group of donors gathered in Medina, Washington, in February 2012. “I mean, there are five or six people in this room tonight [who] could simply make a decision, ‘This will be the next president,’ and probably at least get a nomination.” Obama’s audience, which included several billionaires, had each paid $17,900 into his reelection coffers to attend. According to Ken Vogel, indefatigable chronicler of political money flows, the president’s jeremiad contained the obligatory reference to the brothers Koch and their famously bottomless war chest — an ever-reliable bogeyman, of course, for Democratic fund-raisers.

Thanks in part to such invocations, the 2012 election generated a shade under $7 billion for the industry, an all-time record. A single Republican consulting firm, Crossroads Media, collected no less than $248 million during the campaign, even though it was on the losing side. But the $7 billion figure will almost certainly be dwarfed by the 2016 total, as indicated by just one astounding statistic: a week before this year’s New Hampshire primary, the contending campaigns had already spent $100 million there on TV ads. In the previous election, by contrast, the campaigns had invested a mere fiftieth of that amount on TV at the same point.

Unquestioning faith in the power of money is occasionally shaken by a discordant note. This year, there was the public fiasco of Right to Rise USA, Jeb Bush’s $118 million super PAC, which spent almost $65 million before the first primary vote was cast and yielded wretched showings in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina before the candidate finally pulled the plug. Scott Walker, the governor of Wisconsin, meanwhile rode into the race as the reputed candidate of the Koch brothers and their fabled billions, along with a $20 million super PAC, and swiftly vanished without a trace.

In contrast, Donald Trump soared ever higher in the polls while boasting that he had no need to raise money because he had plenty of his own (of which he spent comparatively little). Garnering free time on TV thanks to his entertainment value and skillful use of social media, Trump appeared to call the whole election-complex model into question, earning him “few friends in the campaign industry,” according to a December article in the trade journal Campaigns and Elections. Yet the professionals remained unruffled, opining that as a billionaire celebrity, Trump was one of a kind, and anyway, he wouldn’t last long once the polls opened. “I’m concerned for the country,” the Democratic consultant Mark Mellman told Campaigns and Elections when asked about Trump’s ascent. “I’m not concerned for the industry.”

Mellman, two-time winner of the journal’s 2014 award for “Best Bare-Knuckled Street Fight Victory,” was right. Before too long, Trump fell into line, at least to the extent of spending heavily on TV. In addition, anti-Trump ads have generated much bonus revenue for the industry: Our Principles, a super PAC that has spent $3.3 million this election, was launched for the specific purpose of attacking him, while Right to Rise adorned an Iowa roadside with a billboard reading “donald trump is unhinged” — jeb bush. Otherwise, nothing has changed. The consultants continue to be amply fed, so Hillary Clinton must regularly exit the campaign trail to hunt for money — every two days, on average, in the month before the Iowa caucuses. Bernie Sanders’s money-raising prowess generates admiring comment all around. Marco Rubio kowtows to the casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, who pumped a reputed $150 million into industry pockets during the 2012 contest, though his preferred candidates mostly lost anyway.

Although reformers lament the Supreme Court’s contemporary loosening of restraints on campaign finance, the rise of the modern election industry can in fact be dated to post-Watergate efforts to rein in campaign spending. New rules imposed accounting requirements, which effectively mandated the services of professionals, while limits on party spending fostered an explosion in PACs — each of which, naturally, required a consultant. Decade after decade, the industry kept growing. Meanwhile, a spate of recent legal decisions — most notably the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling but also a lower court’s v. Federal Election Commission — inaugurated the age of “independent expenditures”: industry-speak for super PACs, to which corporations and individuals can donate without restraint. This has ensured a potentially limitless income stream, all shared among a relatively small number of individuals and firms.

In further benefit to the consultant class, these entities are not allowed to communicate with the candidates they claim to support. Chuck Rocha, a Democratic consultant catering mostly to minority candidates, summarized the advantages of this enforced independence: “It’s like living under the golden arches — no need to talk to the candidate, no need to talk to the staff, just put up a bunch of TV ads, sit back, and let the money roll in.” Even better, at least as far as the industry is concerned, is the magnetic effect super PACs exert on wealthy but ignorant donors. As Trevor Potter, the former chairman of the Federal Election Commission, explained to me, “You went from a handful of firms to a vast playing field with people all over the country, with enormous sums of money being spent — and being spent by people who are unsophisticated in the ways of politics.”

Curious to learn more about industry economics, I sought insider wisdom from Mark McKinnon, an affable Texan who has directed an impressive number of election victories, including George W. Bush’s media campaigns in 2000 and 2004. Obligingly, he briefed me on how the arrival of unsophisticated players has so greatly benefited the professionals: “The people who produce the media and buy the media get a refund from the television stations. In the old days, that was a fifteen percent rebate. For the longest time we would make deals with the campaign and say, ‘Don’t worry about this, you don’t have to actually pay us, because we’re getting compensated by commission.’ It never seemed like real money to the campaign, because they didn’t have to write a check to us, it just came back to us from the TV station, even though in reality it was their money. Meanwhile, the stations were making us rich.” He hastened to add that no such commissions were extracted by his firm, Maverick Media, during the Bush campaigns.

Nowadays, candidates have gotten wiser, and they bargain for smaller commissions. Nevertheless, McKinnon pointed out, skyrocketing budgets can easily compensate for reduced commissions. As for super PACs, he added, they tend to have zero oversight. The candidates they ostensibly support, after all, are legally barred from communicating with them. To make matters clear, he sketched out a hypothetical case in which a media consultant with connections to a presidential candidate is not interested in working directly for his campaign — because campaigns spend so much money in unremunerative areas, such as travel and staff salaries. Instead, our hypothetical consultant enlists colleagues and sets up a super PAC.

“You can do it in five minutes with three people,” McKinnon said. “You set it up and you have a treasurer and a whatever. That’s my two buddies and me. Then we go to a couple of [the candidate’s] wealthy friends and say, ‘Hey, do you want to elect your friend? Well, we’ve got a super PAC here. You can give five, ten, fifteen, twenty million dollars, and really have an impact on this race.’ The donor doesn’t know anything about what we do or how we do it. We’re going to go full commission and pay ourselves really well, because nobody’s negotiating with us. For all the donor knows, fifteen percent is the standard deal, because that’s what he’s being told. This is sort of like saying, ‘Okay, you guys. The bank is open, there’s no cameras. There’s no security. Take as much as you need.’ ”

With this scenario in mind, it’s worth examining where all the money has gone in the current presidential race. The $118 million collected for Jeb Bush’s Right to Rise USA (by fund-raisers working, of course, on commission) certainly endeared him to the consultant class. But if the election-industrial complex likes Jeb, it must love Ben Carson. The soft-spoken neurosurgeon’s campaign committee and super PACs had taken in more than $64 million as of the first week of February, of which they spent some $57 million — most of it on raising more money. In the first three months of 2014, for example, the National Draft Ben Carson for President Committee alone raised $2.4 million, outstripping even Hillary Clinton’s cash-harvesting operations during the same period. It spent half of this sum on firms associated with Bruce Eberle, noted for his fund-rasing work with black conservatives like Carson and the briefly high-flying Herman Cain, candidates who are unlikely to win elections but entirely likely to excite the generosity of low-income donors.

A sample of what those donors were buying landed on my doormat in Washington earlier this year. Given that Obama won 90 percent of the city’s votes in 2012, it might seem that the dollar or so it cost to produce and deliver the elaborate Carson mailer — especially to a household that has never sent a nickel to a conservative Republican candidate — was a waste. But Jon Coley, a direct-mail specialist deemed by many a master of the art, told me that the mailer I received was by no means a waste to the consultant. “The more you mail, the more money you make,” he explained on the phone from his pickup while patrolling his cattle farm in Wellington, Alabama. “No more work goes into mailing a hundred and fifty thousand people than fifty thousand people — and there’s a markup per piece.”

Carson’s flailing enterprise is far from the only proof that a losing campaign can be nearly as profitable as a winning one. After Newt Gingrich pulled out of the 2012 race, a firm called TMA Direct brought in an additional $1 million by renting out his and other donor lists. Another firm, Granite Lists, currently offers the 69,552 names on Scott Walker’s list for a mere $8,694 — a great deal, says the company, for “conservative candidates, organizations, and antiunion causes.” The more capacious universe of Mitt Romney donors, meanwhile, can be rented for $131,468.

A practice known as rev-share makes the lists even more valuable for the campaigns — and the consultants — that originally compiled them. Many rental agreements specify that a sizable fraction of some initial sum raised by the list — or, indeed, the entire sum — must be paid to the original owner. Thereafter, the renter is free to use the list exclusively for his own benefit. Everyone wins (Granite’s standard brokerage commission is 20 percent) except the unwitting donor, whose money may have found its way to a candidate he or she despises. As Vincent Harris, a digital strategist for the Rand Paul campaign, told Politico: “Sometimes 60 percent, 70 percent, 100 percent of your donation is going into the pocket of some consultant.” Some consultants, he added, have become millionaires by this means alone.

Profitable as such shadowy transactions may be, they pale in comparison with the mother lode of television. Indeed, broadcasters themselves constitute an essential wing of the election-industrial complex. “Super PACs may be bad for America, but they’re very good for CBS,” crowed CEO Les Moonves in 2012, explaining that he expected election spending to boost his network’s annual profits by $180 million. The 2016 election promises to be even more lucrative.

As Trevor Potter observes, this titanic influx of cash presents a major conflict of interest, since the networks are simultaneously “supposed to be doing news reporting about spending and what’s going on in the world of politics.” Unsurprisingly, TV news reporters seldom dwell on the ineffectiveness of the ads that pay their salaries. But the bigger contradiction remains: quite simply, television does not deliver. There are exceptions to this rule — TV ads may be crucial in bringing an unknown candidate to the public’s attention — but a growing body of academic research confirms it. In one 2008 experiment, for example, researchers studied voters subjected to heavy TV advertising, then compared their reactions with those of voters who had viewed little or none. They found that the first group was no more likely to vote than the second.

According to David Broockman, a political scientist at Stanford, multiple studies have demonstrated that such ads are essentially self-erasing. “There really is not much evidence that TV has a long-lasting effect on people’s views,” he told me. “Someone sees a TV ad on Monday afternoon, they change who they say they’ll vote for on a survey on Tuesday, but by Wednesday, their view has snapped back to what it was on Monday morning before they saw the ad, because they’ve just forgotten it.”

Faith in the power of political commercials goes back to the dawn of television. In 1952, the P.R. director for the Republican National Committee wrote that “TV offers the best, if the most expensive medium to carry the personalities of the candidates to the firesides of America.” Soon, every campaign that could afford the expense was buying time, a development that naturally fostered a new class of consultants, salesmen, and self-anointed experts. Yet as Adam Sheingate points out in Building a Business of Politics, “The political use of television spread widely without much hard evidence that it was effective.” In 1955, Herbert Simon, an economist and political scientist who would go on to win a Nobel Prize, conducted one of the earliest experiments to test the question. Anticipating the more recent studies cited above, he compared the votes of residents in Iowa counties that had television reception with the votes of residents in counties that did not — and found no difference between them.

Mark McKinnon suggested to me that the public may now be wearying of televised political ads, or increasingly immune to them, “like a host that gets used to a virus.” Jeb Bush’s recent debacle would seem to suggest the same conclusion. Yet there is little sign of change. Just as the defense industry successfully promotes ineffective but highly profitable weapons systems, the election industry keeps pushing this ineffective campaign tool on desperate candidates.

Might there be a better way to connect with voters? The election industry has shown little interest in testing its methods (another parallel with defense). Techniques tend to be a matter of lore or seat-of-the-pants instinct, the only constant being that they require lots of money. As McKinnon remarked, “What we do is pretty mystical to people.” However, in 1998, two Yale political scientists, Donald Green and Alan Gerber, set out to change all that. Starting with local voters in New Haven, they began investigating what really persuades people to turn out and vote, something that Americans are exceedingly reluctant to do. (Turnout in American presidential elections — 57.5 percent in 2012 — is among the lowest in the world, and lower still in local elections.) This is a matter of crucial importance, given that most people’s political inclinations tend to change little over time, even under barrages of campaign advertising. As commentators have learned to repeat ad infinitum, winning is largely about making sure your base shows up on Election Day.

Green and Gerber divided a homogeneous pool of voters in two. One group was subjected to a specific method of persuasion — a mailing, say, or a phone call. The other group, the control, was left alone. Over time, the researchers broadened their experiment, overseeing hundreds of such studies across the country. Their conclusions about turnout echoed what Herbert Simon had demonstrated more than four decades before: TV, partisan mail, and robocalls had no effect at all.

Back in the nineteenth century, elections were festive, raucous affairs, often accompanied by free booze and entertainment supplied by the political parties, with saloons doubling as polling places. Turnout by the (all-male) electorate was consequently high. Then came the Progressive reformers, who put an end to all that, instituting the secret ballot, ejecting party representatives from polling places, banning alcohol, and generally imposing what the historian Richard Bensel called a “morgue-like atmosphere” on the proceedings. Subsequent initiatives, such as vote-by-mail — not to mention the impersonality of TV campaigning — have further alienated voters from the process. Reversing that alienation, Green and Gerber revealed, is the key to increasing turnout. One of their experiments even involved throwing “Election Day Festivals” close to polling places. These electoral fiestas lacked booze and brawls but offered plenty of other entertainment, including cotton-candy machines “expertly staffed by political-science professors.” Voters had a good time, and turnout rose accordingly.

Of all the ways to get people to come out and vote tested by the academics, one emerged as the absolute gold standard. Talking to them face-to-face, the longer the better, turned out to have a dramatic effect. This is known in the trade as the “ground campaign” or “field operation,” conducted by volunteers or paid staff, preferably from the neighborhood they are canvassing. It doesn’t come free: the canvassers, even if they are volunteers, have to be housed, fed, trained, and transported. Yet the effect is infinitely more cost-effective than any traditional media-heavy approach.

Meanwhile, this truth has not entirely escaped professional notice. Democrats used a ground campaign instead of media to overturn Republican rule in Dallas in 2006. Dave Carney, the chief strategist for Texas governor Rick Perry, had flown in Green, Gerber, and their colleagues a year earlier to conduct experiments across the state. “Basically, we invested the cost of [one direct mailing] in our field operations,” Carney later told a Texas newspaper. “The results blew our expectations.” In his two presidential campaigns, Barack Obama pursued an energetic ground campaign in combination with a sophisticated “big data” targeting operation to identify, precisely, those voters who needed to be cajoled to the polling booth — though he also bought hundreds of millions of dollars worth of TV time. Of the 2016 candidates, Ted Cruz and Bernie Sanders have most successfully embraced the ground-game approach, incorporating sophisticated digital technology to identify likely supporters for canvassing by ground teams.

For the most part, however, traditional campaigns have shown far less interest in engaging directly with voters. Paul Begala, the former Clinton operative turned television commentator, described a Democratic organizing drive in Republican states as “hiring a bunch of staff people to wander around Utah and Mississippi and pick their noses.”

It is easy to understand why establishment groups might recoil from a volunteer-based, low-cost strategy. Not only does it offer little promise of revenue, it necessarily relies on people more committed and militant than those at the center may deem acceptable. When Donald Green organized those cotton-candy election festivals, for example, he collaborated with Working Assets (now called CREDO), a phone and credit-card company founded in 1985 with the aim of generating revenue for environmental and social progress. Michael Kieschnick, Laura Scher, and Peter Barnes, the activists who started the company, wanted to do more than merely raise money for good causes. They envisaged deploying CREDO’s customer base to support reproductive rights, boost voter registration, and close coal plants. “We have been part of coalitions that have blocked a dozen plants so far,” Kieschnick noted proudly in 2007. “Only a hundred or more to go.”

In 2010, CREDO played a leading role in defeating Proposition 23, an initiative sponsored by oil interests to roll back emissions regulations in California, by recruiting 10,000 volunteers in a massive get-out-the-vote operation. Two years later, as Republicans and Democrats raked in post–Citizens United cash inevitably destined for TV buys, Kieschnick laid plans for a different mode of campaign. “We are starting a super PAC to defeat ten Tea Party Republicans,” he told me at the time. None of the money would be spent on TV; he aimed to win by talking directly to voters.

Florida congressman Allen West, at the top of the target list, was a former Army lieutenant colonel sanctioned for his harsh interrogation techniques while deployed in Iraq. (Rabid and incoherent even by Tea Party standards, West declared that liberal women “have been neutering American men and bringing us to the point of this incredible weakness.”) Others in Kieschnick’s sights included Michele Bachmann, then a Minnesota congresswoman, and Dan Lungren, a former California attorney general who revived capital punishment in the state, fought for harsher drug laws, opposed gay marriage, and campaigned vigorously for cuts in Social Security and Medicare.

Experts predicted an easy win for West. For the race in his heavily Republican district, the congressman raised more than $19 million, plowing $8.8 million of this sum back into fund-raising and spending another $7.2 million on media buys. Meanwhile, the CREDO team, in the words of its political director, Becky Bond, set out to build a “David-and-Goliath campaign where we used our volunteers . . . to move more votes than their hundreds of super-PAC ads.” The volunteers were largely women; many of them had been motivated by West’s misogynistic tirades. The CREDO effort paid off, with West losing by 2,429 votes.

“I have never, ever met a candidate who did not profess a total commitment to old-fashioned voter contact,” Kieschnick told me recently. “But if you look under the hood of the campaign, the candidates spend most of their time raising money for television ads. Candidates fear being told their opponents have an ad when they do not, even if it makes no difference. It is easy for consultants to raise money, for a fee, and then spend it on advertising, and get another fee. But where is the fee on volunteers?”

All together, five of CREDO’s targets, including Lungren, were sent packing. The ten campaigns cost CREDO’s super PAC a total of $2.5 million. Meanwhile, American Crossroads, a cash-glutted super PAC founded by Karl Rove, spent $105 million during the same year and managed to elect only one of its preferred candidates. After the extent of the organization’s losses became clear, one disappointed hedge-fund donor even considered suing Rove, on the grounds that his “investment” had been fraudulently secured, until he learned that the law allowed for no such recourse.

The grassroots campaign that helped to evict West in 2012 grew out of long experience and a well-honed organization. Two years later, Eric Cantor, the majority leader of the House of Representatives and a leading candidate for Speaker, was thrown out of office because Ron Maxwell got mad.

A film director with a number of big-budget credits, including the 1993 epic Gettysburg, Maxwell lives on a mountaintop deep in rural Virginia, near Cantor’s congressional district. Cantor “really got on my radar screen in the last year of the Bush Administration,” Maxwell told me, “when Bush was pushing through all the [Wall Street] bailouts.” Additional evidence of the politician’s crony capitalism — his habit of “doing the bidding of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce” — further dismayed Maxwell, as did Cantor’s inveterate hawkishness and his support for immigrant amnesty, which the director saw as a corporate ploy to impoverish the American worker. The tipping point came in August 2013, when Cantor endorsed Obama’s plan to bomb Syria. Maxwell gathered a group of friends and neighbors who largely shared his brand of conservative Republicanism and said, “You know, we’ve got to get rid of Eric Cantor.”

The reaction, Maxwell told me, was muted. “It was, like, ‘Ron’s blowing off some steam here. Why would anybody take it seriously?’ ” Nevertheless, after probing the mood of the district over the next few months, Maxwell concluded that many Republicans shared his views. They objected to Cantor’s policies — and were irked that the congressman, who believed his hold on the (artfully gerrymandered) district to be unshakable, was never around.

Casting about for a suitable candidate to oppose Cantor in the 2014 Republican primary — which is the de facto election in this G.O.P. stronghold — Maxwell settled on Dave Brat, a conservative economics professor at Randolph-Macon College, a small school a few miles north of Richmond. Prospectively, it was a forlorn effort. The national Tea Party groups declined to endorse the quixotic insurgency. Maxwell himself was beating the bushes for funds, even from friends not necessarily sympathetic to Brat’s agenda. His wife, who gave $1,000, was one of the largest donors: most donations were less than $200. Cantor was meanwhile rolling in money from such Wall Street behemoths as Goldman Sachs. By the time it was over, he had outspent his upstart opponent by a ratio of 41 to 1. One category of expenditure alone — $168,000 for steak-house tabs — cost almost as much as Brat’s entire campaign. Needless to say, Cantor’s staff also blew huge sums on TV ads, many of which tarred Brat (bizarrely, for anyone exposed to his views on free-market economics) as a “liberal college professor.”

Brat’s grassroots ground campaign mirrored the effort of CREDO in 2012. As Maxwell told me, the upstart was “shaking hands, meeting people at Kmart, Costco, Kiwanis Club, Lions Club, P.T.A.’s, Little League, every night. All the volunteers were knocking on doors.” There were no TV advertisements, he said: “Zero. There was no money for it. We were certainly worried about it, because before the Brat election, we were in a world where everybody thought TV matters.”

For the election consultants and pundits alike, Cantor’s ultimate victory was never in doubt: his pollster predicted he would win 60 percent of the vote. This confidence remained intact right up until the announcement that Brat had won, 56–44, abruptly closing down the incumbent’s lavish celebration at a Richmond hotel.

Kieschnick, who retired from CREDO in 2015, believes that this strategy holds bright promise for the progressive element. Asked whether big money could ever be defeated, he told me, “Yes, but only because most of the One Percent — not all! — waste most of their money in politics on expensive but bad advertising and even more expensive consultants. Since the American people agree with us on most of the issues, it is an ongoing struggle between voter suppression, misinformation, and voter turnout. If we simply shifted half of the billions spent on television into ongoing, year-round, person-to-person engagement with voters, progressive candidates would dominate. But year after year, we raise more money and waste it.”

Mike McKenna, who has spent his career working the other side of aisle, has come to a similar conclusion. “If you can convince the politicians that they don’t really need to spend their time raising all that money,” he told me earnestly, “they’ll carry you round Capitol Hill on their shoulders.”

is the Washington editor of Harper’s Magazine and the author, most recently, of Kill Chain: The Rise of the High-Tech Assassins.

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